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Gridlock at 30,000 Feet

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If only it were that simple. The fact is, it’s not just a question of having too much water in the pipes, so to speak. We also have too few pipes. And those that we have are rusting. All of New York’s airports, not to mention those in Philadelphia, D.C., Boston, and the rest of New England, use one traffic-choked corridor for the lion’s share of domestic flights, a kind of airborne I-80. (The route’s official FAA name is J80.) Over and around the city, the superhighway twists into a clump of weaving approach paths leading to the Big Three, as well as Teterboro, Stewart, Islip, and other airfields. Industry insiders like to compare the air-route tangle to a plate of spaghetti; a more accurate description might be a three-dimensional subway map. A few paths lie directly, one might say unnervingly, under one another. Departures from Teterboro’s Runway 19, for instance, can look up and see the undersides of jets headed for Newark’s Runway 22. (Teterboro jets often use a rule-bending maneuver called the Dalton Departure to avoid waiting their turn: They take off under a laxer protocol normally used by small planes, sneak under the Newark traffic, then file a proper flight plan in midair.) A few other paths are in intermittent conflict. Some routes date back to the times when pilots found New York by following the Hudson, aided only by bonfires and beacons; if you’ve ever wondered why your LAX–LGA flight treats you to a nice view of the Atlantic Ocean, followed by a stomach-testing 280-degree turn, you have to go back decades for the answer. The last tweaks to the system were made twenty years ago, and by the FAA’s own admission, the overall map hasn’t changed in any significant way since the sixties.

But unraveling the tangle of flight paths (if that were even possible) would not single-handedly solve New York’s airport problem. There’s still the issue of parking space. “Every pilot knows that it’s concrete, not airspace, that puts the final limit on capacity,” writes pilot J. Mac McClellan in a recent Flying magazine column. Right now, JFK has a combined nine miles of  “concrete,” including 13R, the second-longest commercial runway in North America. Theoretically, it can process up to 100 planes an hour in perfect weather; La Guardia can handle 75, Newark 108. That may sound impressive, but these are perfect-weather ratings. For instance, JFK’s “call rate,” an optimal realistic number of operations per hour, is 87, and the cruel reality is closer to 65. Vehement opposition from local residents and their representatives makes further ground expansion next to impossible.

One would think that the limitations of the system would telegraph something to the airlines—that it’s time to stop adding flights. No such luck. There are no mechanisms in place to regulate the number of planes carriers can schedule at JFK or Newark (La Guardia is capped at 62 to 64 planes an hour in bad weather). Neither is there an economic disincentive: Landing fees are cheap—$800 per flight for a large jet. So like all good capitalists, carriers take the silence of the law as an invitation to make as much money as possible. Passengers want options, and the airlines are in a veritable arms race to please them. This month, for instance, JetBlue offers fourteen daily flights to Fort Lauderdale (nine from JFK and five from La Guardia); Delta, trying to keep up, has nine. All told, there are an astounding 68 flights a day from New York’s three airports to Fort Lauderdale. One side effect of such generous scheduling is the shrinking plane size. On a recent Wednesday evening, a little after five o’clock, I was on the phone with JFK air-traffic controller Barrett Byrnes. “We got ten RJs [regional jets] on the Delta ramp right now,” Byrnes told me, when I asked him to describe the view from his position. “Ten 50-passenger jets. That’s 500-passenger capacity. You can replace them all with two 767s.”

For the sake of this discussion and our frayed nerves, let’s set aside the fact that cramming aircraft into a queue until planes are bobbing in each other’s wake is dangerous. Let’s focus on the absurdity of using perfect-world conditions as a yardstick for how many takeoffs and landings to schedule. This means that when something goes wrong—and something does, daily—each delay reverberates indefinitely. Should the weather go bad for just 30 minutes, causing, say, ten fewer planes to take off, controllers can’t slot them back into the system without pushing back ten other planes. And yet, airlines’ schedules are blithely calibrated to the best-case scenario. John Hansman likens this impulse to overschedule to the “tragedy of the commons” paradox: In a public area where everyone is allowed to graze his cow, overgrazing kills the grass. Everyone loses.


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